The Stories We Tell

Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013 4:30 pm

Days after returning from his study abroad semester in Sri Lanka, Dylan Fisher ’14 began his summer anthropology mentored advanced project (MAP) in Grinnell. Fisher worked with Rachel Van Court ’15 under the mentorship of Professor Kathy Kamp, interviewing families who have farmed in the Grinnell area for generations. Fisher reflects on his experience.

The Stories We Tell

Early this past June, I departed London Heathrow Airport en route from Colombo, the capital city of Sri Lanka. As the plane launched itself up into the air, I turned away from the small window on my left, and looked about the economy class cabin. People around me read magazines and watched movies from small screens wedged into headrests. To my right a family from the London suburbs asked, "Where is your final destination?" In a blend of excitement and fear (for often the one accompanies the other), I too asked myself, "Where is my final destination?" I still wonder.

Two days later, I found myself back in Grinnell, unpacking bags, heavy from months of travel, pinning kitschy artwork on my bedroom walls. I moved slowly from sticky summer heat to the cool air of Goodnow Hall, my recent study abroad experiences trapped beneath layers of sweat. Those first weeks back were difficult; I felt incapable of carrying my story back with me to Grinnell. I was a new person in a place that felt so very old.

I was here for a summer MAP, Reflections on the Past: Land, Memory, and Meaning on the Iowan Farm, in the anthropology department. During this project, I, along with Rachel Van Court '15 (under the mentorship of Professor Kamp), talked with families that have farmed in the Grinnell area for multiple generations. The agricultural practices of these farmers range from conventional and industrialized methods to alternative and organic forms. During these interviews we asked questions about the experience of growing up and living on the farm, memories of the past.

Through these memories, every farmer with whom we spoke (both those practicing industrialized and alternative forms of agriculture) expressed a deep appreciation and stewardship for the land. Often childhood experiences with both family and community on the farm fostered this relationship to the earth. Despite claims from popular (but misleading) environmentalist and agrarian mythology about farming, this love of the earth is not directly connected to the way in which one farms.

Towards the end of each interview I asked, "What was your favorite place on the farm growing up?" The answers to this question were my favorite part of nearly every interview. Farmers responded, retelling stories from their youth, pausing to recall those tiny details of the nearby farms on which they grew up, the farms on which they still live. They mentioned the tractors they once owned, the names of friendly neighbors and brawny horses. They repeated phrases like, "When I was just a kid on the farm..." and "Back then, I remember..." They articulated all those memories that I could not. And for that I was jealous. But I was also captured by the vividness with which they remembered and by the emotional potency of their stories. For moments, as they spoke, they recreated the personal experiences of their past. Memories existed, shared, alive in the space between us, over tabletops, through densely planted corn.

Our strongest memories don't just slip away. They live within us and between us. There is so much value in holding onto to them, and, at times, allowing them into the world, allowing these narratives of the past to be experienced in the present. They speak to the overwhelming greatness of the natural world. Of love and protection. Of hope and fear. Of journey to that final destination. In all their complexity and infinite variability they are human stories. They let us feel and know and believe.

I will remember the stories of these farmers, just as I will remember Sri Lanka. I will remember the sadness of selling the family farm, the childhood thrill of catching rabbits in the snow. I will remember walking along a rocky Sri Lankan shoreline and the feeling of reckless anticipation as the sun began to rise above the ocean.